January 12, 2024 / Esther Choy
In a team meeting, your co-founder Christina keeps harping on the one moment of the presentation where she feels like your team lost a prospective client’s interest. You see her point, but you are ready to strategize on how to move forward and continue building your relationship with this potential client. You feel she’s wasting precious time of your whole team rehashing the same point. You can see from their body language, the other team members are starting to shut down. How do you handle her opposing views?
During a work party, you hear two colleagues raise their voices when the war in Gaza came up. This scene between your two work friends, both of whom you respect deeply, triggers your fears. So at your own family holiday parties, you decided to avoid any kind of conversation with your aunts and uncles who you know hold opposing political views. But you start to question: was this the right thing to do? Did I miss the chance to connect with these family members I love out of fear?
We come up against people we disagree with all the time. In some contexts, the outcome of opposing views may have life or death consequences. In other cases the toll may be emotional or cause strained relationships. In the context of government or business, the outcome could be organizational collapse or stalemate. Thus, it is imperative that leaders learn how to handle a conflict while keeping the systems of their organization functioning and even moving forward.
In the article Abe Lincoln and Kevin McCarthy, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt discusses how certain political leaders have learned to do this very well through the act of listening to and engaging with people with opposing viewpoints. He makes the case that in order to keep a democracy functioning and embrace change, politicians must win a majority of the vote: “That doesn’t mean winning over most of your opponents. It does often mean winning over some of them. And it’s difficult to persuade others if you stop listening to them.” Leonhardt goes on to show how historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. listened to and worked with people with opposing views in order to move the nation forward.
So how do business leaders learn this art of receptiveness to keep the lines of communication open, and perhaps even persuade someone who holds an opposing viewpoint?
Receptiveness, and more importantly being skilled in demonstrating your receptiveness, is the foundation needed to persuade another person. To understand receptiveness, let’s turn to the work of Harvard Kennedy School professor Dr. Julia Minson who studies conflict, negotiations, judgment, and decision making.
What is receptiveness?
Receptiveness is openness, it doesn’t dismiss or dehumanize people who hold opposing viewpoints. Dr. Minson defines it as: “The willingness to access, consider, evaluate supporting and opposing views in a relatively impartial manner.” One key takeaway from her definition is that receptiveness doesn’t mean you have to change your opinion or even compromise your beliefs, rather it’s about listening and openly considering other perspectives.
Why is receptiveness important?
Think about the last time you faced someone with opposing views. What outcomes did you hope for? Did you hope to persuade someone to think more like you? Did you want to be understood? Did you simply want to move on and keep your working relationship viable?
Demonstrating receptiveness can help you accomplish all these things. Dr. Minson’s research shows that people are less likely to tune out when listening to a person with an opposing viewpoint if they show receptiveness. Here’s the power of demonstrating receptiveness during a conflict:
- It’s a foundational building block of persuasion. Dr. Minson’s studies found that people are more willing to listen to a person who demonstrates receptiveness and finds them more persuasive than a person who engages in direct argument.
- It helps others feel heard and understood, which deescalates conflict and improves future engagement between people with differing views.
- Colleagues are more willing to work with one another when they demonstrate receptiveness
- Receptiveness is contagious. The best way to get someone to be receptive to you and your ideas is to be receptive to them and their ideas.
But here’s the thing: in conversation, it is challenging to demonstrate your receptiveness. Dr. Minson’s research found there is quite a low correlation between how receptive a person thought they were being and how receptive their conservation partner thought they were being. How receptive are you? Take this quiz developed by Dr. Minson and her team of researchers to learn how receptive you when conflict arises.
How to show receptiveness
The key to receptiveness is being an active listener, but because listening is an internal process it’s important to give your conversation partner verbal cues that you are listening to their ideas and considering them with an open mind. Dr. Minson and her team of researchers developed the acronym HEAR to help leaders learn how to demonstrate receptiveness in conversation.
- Hedge your claims. Example: “I think it’s possible that…”
- Emphasize Agreement. Example: “We are both concerned with…”
- Acknowledge another’s perspective. Example: “I understand that…”
- Reframe to the positive. Example: “I really appreciate it when…”
Actively listening can also be demonstrated through body language.
Demonstrating receptiveness in the business context
Think back to the opening example of Christina who is derailing your team by harping again and again on the same point. It is possible that she doesn’t feel her perspective is being validated by the team. She wants to be heard and understood. Even if you and other team members do understand her point, it’s very possible that no one in the room demonstrated that to Christina. How could some active listening and verbal cues help Christina feel heard and move the meeting forward?
While Christina’s example is an everyday conflict we may face, showing receptivity can help organizations through transformative change. A current large-scale conflict between opposing viewpoints that almost brought an organization down is AI-optimists versus the Doomerists. While there has been a lot of conjecture about what went into the decisions to remove Sam Altman as the CEO of OpenAI (and then later reinstate him), it is clear that the board who first decided this felt it was their only way to make their views heard. In equally drastic moves, the majority of employees of OpenAI had to threaten to resign in order for their point of view to be heard. It makes one wonder how showing receptivity could have prevented such a public display of drama.
When you are the leader of an organization you must be able to move through conflict while keeping the systems running. Learning how to demonstrate your receptiveness is the first step through moving through conflict, engaging with opposing viewpoints, and persuasion.
How do you lead a team while negotiating opposing viewpoints?
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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